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More college students cutting back on drinking, embracing sobriety

‘Sober curious’ gains steam, professor says

While American college life has long been associated with binge drinking and boozy parties, new evidence shows that, for some students at least, sobriety is trending.

In 1981, 82 percent of college students reported drinking alcohol during the previous 30 days, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s “Monitoring the Future” survey.

In 2021, less than 60 percent reported the same.

Even more, “there’s a nascent movement of college students turning down the red Solo cup,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on April 11.

The news outlet identifies “a more inclusive society, a stronger safety net for those struggling with addiction, and increased skepticism toward alcohol” as reasons that “have made it easier than ever to be a college student who doesn’t drink.”

The Chronicle reported that students are refraining from drinking for various reasons, not just because they’ve become addicted or identify as alcoholics.

“Some people just want to study really hard,” Lindsay Garcia, head of Brown University’s Donovan Program for Recovery and Substance-Free Initiatives, told The Chronicle. “Some people have family history of addiction; some people are in recovery. People have religious reasons or personal reasons or medical reasons.”

“All of a sudden, everything is ‘sober curious,'” Professor Lynsey Romo added to The Chronicle.

Romo is an associate professor of communications at North Carolina State University who studies language people use in talking about alcohol and sobriety.

To be “sober curious” means “to choose to question, or get curious about, every impulse, invitation, and expectation to drink, versus mindlessly going along with the dominant drinking culture,” according to Ruby Warrington, author of the book “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.”

Demographic shifts in college students may also be boosting the ranks of the sober-curious and the simply sober, according to The Chronicle.

One study found that student populations with more racial and ethnic minority, female, and older or nontraditional students had lower binge drinking overall.

“The higher the percentage of minority, female, and older (aged ≥ 22 years) students in a school, the lower the binge drinking rates for total students and high-risk subgroups. These correlations did not vary significantly by survey year,” Professor Henry Wechsler and Meichun Kuo of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote in an American Journal of Public Health article, “Watering Down the Drinks: The Moderating Effects of College Demographics on Alcohol Use of High-Risk Groups.”

The expansion of student services may also have brought down college drinking rates, as the suite of accommodations offered to students has sometimes included alcohol “recovery” or cessation programs.

These “collegiate-recovery programs” may offer “sober housing, social events, and connections to community services,” The Chronicle reported.

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education has 152 member institutions around the world, according to its website.

“Just the presence of a collegiate-recovery program on campus helps normalize the experience of being a college student who doesn’t drink,” Matt Statman, manager of the Collegiate Recovery Program at the University of Michigan, told The Chronicle. 

“What is fairly ingrained in our culture is that being a college student is associated with alcohol and other drugs,” Duncan B. Clark, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on adolescent substance use, told The Chronicle. “That’s proven to be a problematic expectation.”

In other words, sober college life is no longer an oxymoron.

MORE: Of course alcohol contributes to sexual assault. Let’s do something about it.

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